working on island time

IMG_7285There is this assumption amongst friends and family back home that my life is paradise since moving to a tropical island. I often read comments on Facebook that sound something like these: Aruba looks like heaven, or you packed and moved to paradise, or you’re living the dream, or the ever popular jealous. Their words are on mark when it comes to many moments in my life, but I hate to break it to everyone that the reality is my alarm still goes off at 5 every morning, and I’m out the door on my way to work everyday before 7. And even though there are many days when my work is enjoyable and rewarding, I would hardly call it paradise.

The truth is I spend 9 to 10 hours five days a week working and additional time away from work attending events or working at home to meet deadlines. I’m clearly not lounging under the sun, scrunching white sand beneath my toes, and sipping rum punch most days. I’m usually drinking cup after cup of coffee and a much coveted club soda during the 30 minute break I have to scarf down a cafeteria lunch, which always consists of a plate of rice with a side slab of mystery meat. Depending on the day, I get 60 to 90 sacred silent moments to do all the work it takes to teach class after class of teenagers in English and history. And this teaching of teenagers, according to my all time favorite quote on the profession by Franklin Habit, “seems to require the sort of skills one would need to pilot a bus full of live chickens backwards, with no brakes, down a rocky road through the Andes while simultaneously providing colorful and informative commentary on the scenery.” So, yes, I am on that bus for 7 hours everyday—it’s a far cry from the beach.

Beginning with the sound of my alarm, my morning routine hasn’t changed much from that of my previous life. Really the only difference I can think of is that my breakfast now consists of one banana. I vaguely remember making oatmeal on cold, drizzly mornings in another place and time. Some days, if I didn’t have time to make breakfast, I would grab a banana nut bread on my daily stop at Starbucks. I no longer make frequent stops at the Starbucks drive thru en route to work, which usually had a line of cars that wrapped around the building and onto the street because apparently every other American had the same morning routine.There are days in Aruba, however, when I do stop at the Tur Dia (I think this is Papiamento for everyday) for a cheese pastechi. This is usually on Friday mornings, after the last of the bananas have turned a dark spotted brown because fruit ripens quickly in the tropics.

I still drive an old car, a Hyundai instead of a Honda. Only my commute in a jalopy does not shorten my telomeres as it once did on a heavily congested freeway—one that is always under construction in the city where I come from—where if your car were to break down, a helicopter would soon be flying overhead to report the mile-long traffic jam caused as result of your modest teacher salary. If my car breaks down here, I could just veer off on to the open space of dirt along the side of the one lane road, and someone would probably even stop to help me. The combination of sun, sand, and sea in the air can wreak havoc on a vehicle however; two of my door handles have fallen off and my windshield wipers just stopped working last week. But I’m not complaining because it seldom rains on a desert island and no one here judges me for not having door handles. And any commute where one routinely sees chickens and goats on their way to work is worth the price of not being able to open a car door or sometimes see clearly through the windshield.    

Once I get to my classroom, I drop my bag and turn on the airco; it’s like an oven in there every single morning of the year. I plop down at my desk and open up my laptop to check email. Checking email when I first arrive at work is something I would do in my old life, but earlier this week on Monday morning, a little bird was flying around the room above me while I sat and surveyed my inbox. Actually, a bird flying about indoors is unusual here as well because it is much more common to find creepy crawlies slithering on the ground. And on that same day, during my second period class, a student spotted a scorpion and everyone hysterically jumped to their feet. Luckily, the scorpion was already dead, which I discovered after evacuating the classroom since my students were already trying to kill it. I’m preparing for the day that I come across a boa constrictor or a centipede. I have watched in awe as other teachers have clobbered centipedes with rocks or captured boa constrictors coiled around toilets. I only hope I can be so brave!

The working part of my life here seems more familiar to me than anything else on this island. The school runs very much like the schools I have worked at in the States. I have fewer students overall, but I make up for it by teaching multiple subjects across several grade levels. I never teach the same lesson twice, which is great if the lesson was a complete flop, but not so much if there is room for improvement the next go around. And I’m always flying by the seat of my pants as far as content goes because there isn’t much time to read ahead. Thursday morning I reviewed students through Hamilton vs. Jefferson, and then moved on to another class about vague pronoun references mid-morning, followed by a class covering the French Revolution before lunch, and then an afternoon of character analysis covering a book I haven’t read in years. 

Teenagers are pretty much the same all around the world. The typical traits for the adolescent stage of development are fairly predictable. Teens are by nature impulsive, gregarious, argumentative, rebellious, moody, hilarious, and extremely energetic. Inevitably, when someone asks what it is I do for a living, they always respond with you couldn’t pay me enough or that isn’t a job I would want. Usually, I piece together a quick defense of the profession and of teenagers in general. “They’re just developing their independence,” I explain. “It’s totally normal for them to question authority. It means they are thinking critically.” “Maybe we as adults could benefit from recovering some of these traits instead of blindly accepting the status quo.” This is also what I tell myself on the really challenging days, which are usually the days when I have left my sense of humor at home. When all else fails, I just remind myself that their full frontal lobe is not fully developed.

I still come home from work exhausted. How can you not after arriving at sunrise to spend all day piloting a bus full of chickens backwards down a rocky road in the Andes? Nowadays, I let myself take a siesta when I get home from work, which is an instinct I always fought in the United States because it felt lazy. But I’m in the land of hammocks now, not a place for guilt when it comes to relaxation. I eat a snack when I get home from work and then I am out like a light. It’s the strangest kind of sleep ever, knocked out and dead to the world for all of 15 minutes. After I wake up, I carry forward with my evening by trying to create a semblance of some kind of life away from work. I am more than my job, I remind myself. I have interests and hobbies; at the very least, I must exercise and eat a healthy dinner. Most of the time I can pull together an evening that reflects all of this somewhat, maybe an evening yoga class or dinner out with friends, except on Fridays. On Fridays I wave the white flag, order take out, and watch a movie on Netflix. As long as I have something on schedule for Saturday night, I never worry about a Friday night with Netflix.

I wish I could say that the island has cured my Friday fatigue or that feeling that there is never enough time to do it all. The irony is my job is harder than ever since moving to paradise. It takes every bit of the many years of experience I have to handle it, but here is the thing—I wouldn’t be able to handle it if I weren’t living in paradise. I would have already lost my mind trying to do what I do here in Dallas. Americans could learn a lot from this because I have never been more productive than I am now that I live on island time. My work load is heavier than ever, my schedule is nuts, and whenever I turn around I am greeting new students with varying degrees of English proficiency. But something about island mentality melts away all the stress, and without the added stress, all of it seems doable. On an island, the collective mindset is that everything will eventually get done and there is always a beach to go to when the work is over. It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you follow this formula.

The best part about living on a rock surrounded by beaches is there is never a need to take a vacation to a beach to get away from it all, which leaves space to explore another kind of landscape when you finally make it to vacation time. We leave for Colombia in one week. It’s been a long stretch until Spring Break this year, and I have never been more ready to turn off the alarm clock and throw out the schedule.

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Last year around this time I wrote about what it feels like to settle into a daily routine living in another country. I was excited to report about the shift in mind that took place once I realized I was no longer a tourist. Spend enough time in another country and this shift becomes even more pronounced. It begins to feel as if life has always been this way. Sunday afternoon at the beach year-round. Sipping on soursop smoothies. Following yoga instructions in Dutch and Papiamento. Chasing lizards out of your kitchen. Listening exclusively to Caribbean rhythm on your car stereo. There are days when it seems like I have always done these things. The mind can play tricks on you when you slip away across borders.  

That is the only way I know how to describe what happened: One hot summer day I serendipitously slipped out of my country. I didn’t plan far in advance. I didn’t plot out a course of action years ahead of my departure date. I never thought that someday soon I would board a plane and fly away from home. Looking back, I realize now that all of it was quite arbitrary. So it feels odd to begin to feel rooted here after such a chance landing on this island, some 20 months ago. It’s the kind of experience that will make you forever question Where is home? Is it always defined by a plot of soil on earth? Could it also be a state of mind? And if place is inextricably meshed with identity, could it be the case that some of us are more inclined to put pieces of places together so as to best, most authentically, shape our sense of self, especially the wanderlust types?

Texas is where I was born. I grew up in the grit of a concrete and glass city. I moved to New Mexico when I was 17, at my first opportunity to live life out from under the roof of my parents. I spent six years there; those mountains are a part of me now. My dreams take me to other places that feel like home because they are in sync with my spirit. These are cities, countries and regions that I have traveled to again and again. Some where I have a stayed weeks, maybe a month or longer. Others where I have spent entire summers. These are the places that speak to me through books and call me to come home and stay awhile: Mexico, the Redwoods, New York City, the Andes, Big Bend, Italy, San Francisco and so on. Now I pay taxes on a desert island in the Dutch Caribbean. I have a doctor and a dentist assigned to me here as a result. Aruba is home for now.

Home for me then has become a patchwork of places more so than an actual structure or dot on a map. Some of these pieces are bigger than others, but all have shaped who I am. And in doing so, my mind is definitively more open and my soul has stepped far beyond what was possible staying put in just one place. I’m hoping Aruba will be a rather large piece of this work in progress because, simply put, it is paradise here, and I want this piece of paradise to be with me forever.

It’s not just the white sand and turquoise sea that make it paradise. I think it also has something to do with island geography because island life is not like life lived on any other landscape. There is something about being completely surrounded by sea that changes everything people once told you about how you should live your life. Perhaps it is because islands are solitary specs on the map, far-flung from the continents and their conventions. Who knows? What I do know is that less emphasis is placed overall on living life according to rules. Life here is always about living in the moment.

Loitering? What’s that? There are few rules about loitering here as far as I can tell. Community ties are important, and men meet at the corner store after a hard day at work to drink Balashi. The store clerk opened the bottle of beer for them on the way out the door. Then they stand in a circle or take a seat on the curbside next to their buddies. No tickets to worry about for parking in the wrong space or in the wrong direction. Celebration is an essential part of life, and you can park anywhere you want in order to get to the parade on time. 

Apart from the freedom that comes with a bit of lawlessness, it is the people I have met here who truly make this place paradise. The people of Aruba are always happy, and there is a reason the license plates read One Happy Island. Just yesterday, we stopped for a drink late afternoon at the White Hill Bar in San Nicolaas. It is family owned and operated, like most businesses here. After ordering drinks and taking music requests, the daughter, who was busy making tamales in the kitchen, brought out Carnaval costumes for us to wear while we sipped our beers on the breezy outdoor patio. Eventually she came outside to join us, only this time disguised as an old man in a latex mask. Celebration here is a state of mind. It is part of the everyday, so it is to be expected everywhere you go. At any moment, a waitress might change into an old man and dance around the table, and you better be ready to get up and dance too. Basically, be ready to do anything on a whim because there are no excuses for not living in the moment. 

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Of course this wouldn’t be the first time I have danced around in costumes on a Saturday afternoon. But there is something here that I never could find in the United States. It can only be found through making friends with people from around the world when you are the one who is the immigrant with a working visa, immersed in a crisscross land of cultural traditions that mix and mingle.

It is a borrowed mindset that becomes your own after repeated experiences living amongst other cultures, after long conversations about the meaning of life with someone from another part of the world. So much of what has brought me joy – and relief – living life here is the notion that I can completely forget what I was programmed to believe about happiness in the United States.

There is nothing like Dutch directness to slap away neurotic American assumptions about what is truly important. It’s like throwing out a long list of ingredients to a recipe that doesn’t work and replacing everything with a few quality staples to always keep in mind. Excessive consumerism and media consumption, toss all of it. Ditch the Botox, Dysport, and Juvederm. You can throw out the teeth whitener while you are at it (you won’t find any of that here anyway). Focus on collecting experience over stuff, that is one of the staples. Get outside, move, relax, enjoy, and just be you are other essential ingredients. And above all else, don’t do anything because everyone does it that way according to age, gender, etc. Finally, add a heaping spoonful of Caribbean celebration and a dash of Dutch quirky humor and pragmatic thinking, and you are well on your way to discovering the taste of freedom. 

I’m certainly not here to knock the United States, although I do worry a great deal when I tune in to the evening news for the five minutes I allow myself to stay informed, but not go insane. I guess I left at a convenient time because it has become clear to me that I have far more in common with the values people bring to this island (from all over the world I might add) than those shared by a large portion of people living in the United States. Someday I will slip back across the border much the same way I left, perhaps four years later than I had planned. My hope is that I can carry this giant piece of home from Aruba back with me. I can easily hold on to the Caribbean rhythm. I may be able to find imported soursop somewhere. As for everything else from my Aruba home that I will eventually miss, I can always return during the winter months with a flock of American tourists.

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A Green Christmas in Aruba

WRITTEN BY: TIFFANY LEWIS

It’s hot and sticky outside and my neighbor, Poor John, is blasting “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” from his house, which seems surreal since the island is turning green… definitively not white. Sinterklaas visits homes tomorrow evening with his Zwarte Piet, and all the children will place their shoes next to the front door in hopes that he will leave behind a bright orange carrot inside one of their shoes instead of beating them with his twig broom. It’s the rainy season here now, so it’s best to always carry a large, strong umbrella. Sunny days are deceptive this time of year because storms surge in suddenly out of nowhere and bring a torrential downpour for all of two minutes and then leave as quickly as they came. Welcome to December in the Dutch Caribbean.

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Who knows if Sinterklaas is even on the island. The typical two-minute torrential downpour lasted all morning two weeks ago when Sinterklaas was scheduled to arrive by boat at 10am. He may have drowned out at sea in the storm since his boat never made it to the port that day, leaving thousands of children on the island terribly disappointed. We had planned to welcome him as well; instead, I spent all day trapped inside my house watching the dirt roads in Tanki Flip turn into rivers.

The rain had been pounding down on the rooftop all morning that day, but my reaction was flat after Hurricane Mathew passed by in late September. It seems as if it hasn’t stopped raining since Matthew. I stayed in bed enjoying the rain, lost inside a book while my phone pinged again and again. Finally, sensing something wasn’t quite right with a barrage of Sunday text messages, I took time to scroll through countless texts about rising water around the island. Some colleagues had posted alarming pictures, so alarming that I sprung up out of bed to look outside my window and survey the water level.

My patio chairs were already under water, and they would have been floating around the backyard if they were made from wicker instead of wood. I rushed about the house pulling the curtains back at every window. The empty garbage bin was madly swirling around in the side yard playing bumper cars with everything in its path. Looking out the front of the house, neighbors were wading in water up to their thighs while transporting giant slabs of plywood board from one house to another as they screamed words I could not understand in Papiamento. Their actions, however, communicated to me that the situation was serious. They seemed to know exactly what to do and clearly benefitted from being natives, already busy dropping sandbags in front of their doors.

Within moment of realizing I should probably follow their lead, my electricity was out and my dreamy Sunday morning had turned into a nightmare. The toilet began mocking me for my septic tank ignorance as it loudly gurgled out over and over. I closed the bathroom door and tried to ignore the sound. When was the last time I had that thing serviced? I looked outside at an elevated platform that marked the septic spot and all its nefarious wickedness lurking below ground. Water was already starting to lap up over the top of it. I noticed that a rock precariously covered the hole at the center. Is that normal? Shouldn’t it be tightly sealed shut?

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Needless to say, I was not prepared for a flood. There were days and days of weather tracking and nail biting anticipation before Hurricane Matthew, but I was busy living my life this particular weekend and had no clue dangerous weather was even on the radar. My main concern was just how high the water would rise. When would it start to come inside the house? And how long would the toilet continue to chide me before the septic system caused real harm?

I looked outside again and spotted a Cocker Spaniel swimming down the street. The water was now seeping in under my front door. I began throwing any absorbent material I could find in the pathway of the water flowing inside under the door: old towels, sheets, mattress covers, and a suitcase of winter clothing for safe measure. Then I  started moving things in every room to higher ground, stacking stuff on top of beds, dressers and the dining room table. I packed a backpack of items that I would not want to lose or have destroyed including my passport and international documents, souvenirs from South America, and pictures of my friends and family back home.

And then, just as steadily as it had risen, the waist-high water began to slowly recede. The rain had finally stopped. It took a very long time and I wasn’t able to open the front door until the sun was setting that evening, but I have never been so thankful to turn a knob and push a door open.

The clean-up is still in progress two weeks later, and Poor John has been a big help, although he isn’t always the most reliable. I have learned that as soon as I pay him, he will quickly drop the rake, machete, or whatever is in his hand at the moment to race to the store and buy a bottle of rum. Then he comes back a few days later and usually points to a large knot on the top of his head caused by, he claims, a falling coconut. “It’s not healing, Jennifer. I need medicine. I work now. You pay me 200 Florin. I respect you.”

In the aftermath of each and every storm that has hit the island this season, construction on a cunucu house continues at a roundabout I pass through everyday to and from work. Decorating roundabouts by building some sort of festive structure strung to the hilt with lights is all part of a holiday tradition on the island. This particular roundabout also gets a lot of traffic because a herd of goats gathers there during rush hours most days. Something about that roundabout and those goats and the cunucu house makes me incredibly happy.

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Maybe it is in the way the island goats take over and block traffic, doing whatever they damn well please in spite of all of these humans and their moving machines. Or perhaps it is also how Arubans just patiently wait for the goats to move along without honking horns or running them over. Once the goats are gone, you can amuse yourself by driving around and around to check out the progress on the house. On Monday, they have carved designs onto the outside columns, by Friday they have painted the whole thing blue, and the next week the inside is completely furnished with tables and chairs and such. There is even a Christmas tree inside. They built a house from the ground up in the middle of a busy intersection where four lanes of  traffic constantly merge around and around in every direction. Why? Because it is Christmas in Aruba and nothing is going to stand in the way of that, no matter how much rain falls from the sky. 

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7 Island Trade-offs To Treasures

Originally published on 10/24/16 on Women who Live on Rocks

WRITTEN BY: TIFFANY LEWIS

I am learning to live on a shoestring budget after taking a walloping salary cut when I moved to Aruba. Even though my modest teacher salary was almost cut in half, my income here is actually comparable to the average income for most Arubans, so I aptly adapted and am living like the locals. In so doing, I quickly shed my American consumer mentality in order to survive. I said goodbye to a myriad of products and brands and services that were once part of my everyday life. There are things I simply cannot afford to indulge in while living in paradise. My kitchen is not equipped with every major appliance. I never did buy a toaster. I don’t read magazines anymore. And at nearly $10 a box, cereal for breakfast in the morning is no longer an option. I will admit that the hardest thing to give up has been shopping for clothes. And if flip flops do not count as real footwear, then I haven’t bought a new pair of shoes since moving here 15 months ago – now that may easily be my greatest sacrifice.

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It all sounds a bit gloomy and bleak, but that is not the case at all. There is this delightful game of bartering that takes place when it comes to island living. And if you engage in the shuffling of one thing for another with creative enthusiasm, the island will lead you to discover a gleaming treasure in exchange for everything you are forced to relinquish. Since some things here are astronomically expensive, they are swapped out for other things that are surprisingly cheap. And most of the time a far more amusing, and sometimes superior, substitute is uncovered. That, or you learn that you never needed what you gave up in the first place.

Here are 7 of the trade-offs for treasures that I have discovered in my island life:

1. Seafood and take away snacks are what’s for dinner.

Buying food on an island is expensive. If it is in a glossy package with a cartoon character and catchy caption, then you are going to have to quit cold turkey because it will cost 3 to 4 times the amount that it does in the states. I’ve had to shorten my itemized grocery list significantly to make it on this new budget. Luckily, living on an island brings a fresh daily supply of seafood for next to nothing. I pay about $3-4 USD for the catch of the day, which would cost me a fortune in the landlocked city where I previously lived. When it comes to finding other staple grocery items, it pays to shop around. Some of the best deals can be found in small corner stores that advertise imported products from countries in South America. I walked to one like this around the corner from my house early this morning. I went in for eggs and left with a dozen in a simple paper carton stamped Aruba. I also bought a bag of purple Peruvian potatoes, a bunch of bananas, and a handful of chicha moradacandies. All of this cost around 10 Florin, which is the equivalent of $5.59 USD.

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Arubans love their snacks, and culinary influences from all over the planet merge here. At every turn, there is a take away located next to homes that doubles as a business. It’s as if mom is cooking in her kitchen for the entire island and everyone is invited to sample recipes passed down from one generation to another. She opens up the Dutch door and invites all who pass by to order up an Aruban pastechi, or a Colombian emapanada, or a Dutch croquette, or Surinamese roti, or Peruvian ceviche. And the good news is that all of these savory snacks are filling and served generously enough to double as a meal when you are on a budget. Essentially, dinner can be bought for the price of a snack, which is about 3-6 Florin, or roughly $2-3 USD.

2. Movies are cheap if you can’t afford the book.

Buying books and magazines here is costly. I’ve had to give up magazines altogether. I will sometimes stop in front of the magazine aisle at the grocery store or bookstore to casually flip through and mourn this loss. Recently, I signed up for a library card to make my way around the book dilemma. Still, it is not a perfect solution, and it can be impossible to find some authors. I’m currently looking for Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. It’s like trying to find sap to harvest from a maple tree in the dense desert island thicket. The worst is reading the name of an author perched high on a shelf, only to open it up and find the book is written in Dutch. But if you can’t find the book, the next best thing is finding out that it will be released as a movie because going to the movies here is surprisingly cheap. On Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays, tickets are 2 for 1. And buying popcorn and soda isn’t a luxury here like it is in the states. No need to sneak a candy bar in your handbag. Basically, you can go to the movies and have the popcorn for around 12 Florin, which is about $6.70 USD.

3. Remember to ask for the local discount.

Once I officially became a working resident and obtained the much coveted AZV card, I found out that there are all kinds of discounts if you remember to ask. Any tourist destination will let you pay the USD amount with Aruban Florins, which is basically slashing the price in half. We take advantage of this hiking Arikok Park most Sundays. My favorite Florin for Dollar deal is at a luxury resort on the island, Tierra del Sol, where you can go on Sundays and pay 90 Florin (around $50 USD) for a one hour massage and gain access to the pool and other facilities for the remainder of the day. And other retail businesses often offer a decent discount on products sold to island residents. Aruba Aloe offers discounts on all of their aloe body products, so I buy all of my body lotion there. It feels good to support local businesses too.

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4. Laundry service is one of the best deals around.

There are laundry services on every corner all over the island where you can plop down a bag of dirty laundry and just walk away. They will wash it, dry it, and then professionally fold everything and pack it up for pick up. It always feels and smells like angels have cleaned your laundry. All of this for 12 Florin a load. It may sound like a hefty amount, but when you factor in that you live on an island and only wear one summer season wardrobe and that laundry detergent could easily cost you almost the same amount since it is one of those ridiculously expensive items, then paying for laundry service just makes economic sense. Throughout my first year, I stubbornly insisted on doing laundry at home and hanging it on the line to dry while lizards darted between my feet. The novelty soon wore off, and after my washing machine quit working, I realized I was just wasting my time with the line and lizards. Now I take two bags every two weeks and pay about $24 USD a month. And nothing compares to not having to do laundry. I remind myself of this everyday while routinely washing a never-ending stack of dishes by hand.

5. Let go of brand loyalty and look for the Dutch equivalent.

Aruba is part of the Dutch Caribbean, so the influence from the Netherlands is felt all over the island. I discovered early on that the Dutch stuff is cheaper than the American product next to it on the shelf, yet the quality is always the same, or sometimes even better. So when I am out shopping for just about anything, I veer my cart towards the Dutch products. I have no idea what any of the stuff is since I don’t speak the language and can’t read the labels. I decipher what I am buying through the picture on the package. Some American products are sold in disguise in the Netherlands, like Mr. Clean who is Mr. Proper. One of the best things about buying Dutch is that there is always some new quirky discovery to make. I sometimes take my native friend shopping with me and have her introduce me to new products at the grocery store. “Show me something that you would buy,” I dramatically plead. A few weeks ago, she taught me about hagelslag. These are sprinkles like the kind on top of donuts and cupcakes that cause kids to squeal and clap their hands simultaneously, but in the Netherlands, adults pour them over bread and butter. Who needs breakfast cereal when you have hagelslag? Another perk to living under the Dutch influence is the ubiquitous, inexpensive, never-ending supply of gourmet cheese. They sell it in bulk, giant blocks of it are on the shelves in every store, including the gas station.

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6. The best beaches in life are free.

Most of the things I do here that bring joy are absolutely free. Going to the beach tops the list. It is the go-to replacement for anything that seems to be missing. I have also taken up hiking because I can’t get enough of the natural setting here after living in a cement city for so long. And the water that fills my bottle to keep me hydrated is some of the best water in the world. It is delicious and also costs next to nothing because of the superior desalination system here in Aruba: it flows right out of the tap. Most entertainment on the island is free of cost as well since entertainment here consists of one festival after another, month after month. The islanders do like to celebrate. The biggest celebration on the island takes place during the season of Carnival; it doesn’t cost a dime and all of the events held for over a month leading up to it are also free of charge. Basically, you bring your own chair, take a seat on the street, mix yourself a drink, and enjoy the show.

7. Say goodbye to a grueling commute.

The best kind of trade offs are the things from your previous life that needed to go. Cold weather comes to mind. Grueling commutes are another. Nearly two years ago when I was considering the move to Aruba, I remember thinking I could never make it if my salary was nearly cut in half. But so much of my hard-earned money was spent just maintaining life working in the city. One of the biggest expenses was my commute to work. Sometimes my trip home would take over an hour because of gridlock traffic on freeways. Nothing eased the pain of that daily back and forth, no amount of audiobooks, or NPR, or Spanish language lessons. I no longer drive on freeways. Nowadays, my commute is ten minutes on winding roads, lined with towering cacti. If there is a traffic jam, it is usually because the goats have gathered for a meeting in the roundabout. And like the beach, my new commute to work more than makes up for any sacrifices I have made – it may even be a fair trade off for all the shoes I haven’t bought since moving to this rock. Of course, if you ask any island girl, flip-flops do count as actual footwear.

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What are some trade-offs you’ve made on your rock that have ended up being a surprising benefit of island living?

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10 more simple proofs that I have landed in some magical place

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I recently discovered hagelslag. To my English ears, the word sounds like it might describe something hideous, like a troll living under a bridge or rotten coleslaw. Hagleslag are actually sprinkles, like the kind you put on top of donuts and cupcakes, magical colorful confetti sprinkled on baked goods that make little kids lose it, letting out a high-pitched squeal and maniacally jumping up and down while clapping their hands. Here in Aruba under the influence of the Dutch, grown-ass adults copiously sprinkle this stuff all over plain bread and butter, it’s usually eaten for breakfast. Who needs Frosted Flakes and Lucky Charms when you have hagelslag to pour over your toast in the morning.

Snorkeling is the best way to go on an adventure without any hassle. Just put on your mask and dive into another world.

Laundry service is at the top of the list when it comes to island trade-offs. I have to wash all of my dishes by hand, but I no longer do laundry because there is a laundry service on just about every corner, and for 12 Florin per load, you can drop off your clothes and just walk away from this tedious, time-consuming, task altogether. When you go to pick up clean laundry, all of your clothes and towels will be meticulously folded and smell as if an actual angel from above did this chore for you. These people are professionals. Trust me, you can’t get these results at home.

On the way into the grocery store, you can choose from a rather large collection of smoothies. They are already prepared and ready to go, and you can sip on them while you push the cart along the aisle. My favorite is the pineapple-coconut.

We’ve recently discovered many homes that dot the coastlines along the rough side of the island where the waves crash on to the rocks. Anyone can take up temporary residence for an afternoon cookout, and it’s a great place to watch the sunset.

All of the artistic souls who call this island their home came together recently to put together the first annual Aruba Art Fair in San Nicolas. Just a few steps down from the red light district, abandoned buildings along the street were transformed into gallery spaces for the evening where artist displayed their works. Meanwhile, on the outside of these buildings, painters could be found high up on scaffolding putting their finishing touches on spectacular murals. Some were even spray painting the police station. Dancers and musicians performed over a course of three days, and people flocked to this event from all over the island.  The weekend after that we attended the Caribbean Jazz Festival. More live performance. More food and drink. And lots of fun.

The catch-of-the day is often what’s for dinner because it is so incredibly cheap.

People open up their homes as businesses all over the island. Most of these businesses serve up traditional snacks prepared from recipes passed down from one generation to another. My house is a few steps from a home that serves up savory Aruban pastechi. At another home around the corner, you can find Surinamese roti. Walk a little farther down the street, and you come across a Colombian home that offers homemade empanadas and arepas. Culinary influences merge from all over the world here, and mom is cooking something delicious up in a kitchen nearby.

Aside from the hurricane that passed by last weekend, it is summer year round here in Aruba. The sun always shines, and the sky is blue every single day of the week.

My commute to work is like a dream. I drive down winding roads lined with towering cacti, and the only traffic I have to deal with is when the goats decide to hold council inside the roundabout.

bolivia bound without a plan

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I am a firm believer in traveling without a plan. There is so much to be gained from throwing out the itinerary. Of course, there are times where you absolutely must have a detailed course of action mapped out in advance, trekking the Andes is an example. That took a good deal of planning months before our departure date. Actually, so much planning went into it that we were burned out on planning and decided it would be best to just fill in the blanks as we made our way southward from Cuzco. But it does take a certain sense of adventure and badass mentality to just let things unfold spontaneously in a foreign country. So, in many ways, you have to take a deep breath and just jump. We had a basic idea of where we would go when we left Cuzco. We knew we would take a bus south to Lake Titicaca. I had always wanted to see the floating islands. Isabel wanted to see the Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia. So, at some point, we would need to cross the border around Lake Titicaca into Bolivia and make our way across the country without a plan.

The day before we left for Bolivia we were headed back to Puno after a 2 day overnight tour of several islands on Lake Titicaca, which was not something we even knew you could do before we left on the trip. We actually found out about it during our last night in Cuzco. We were eating dinner out and made friends with a couple from New York who were dining at the table next to us. They told us their story. They met through a gay hiking group (proof that there truly is something for everyone) and were in Peru to trek the Andes. The younger half explained that hiking had completely transformed him because he was really fat before he took it up. His partner agreed and pulled up a picture on his phone to prove the story. “Can you believe this is the same guy?” He pointed and boasted. They had just returned from Lake Titicaca, and we were headed there the next day, so they gave us valuable tips. They told us that we had to do the overnight stay with a local family on the island of Amantani. They also suggested we order the Guinea pig on the menu for dinner that evening. “You have to try it!”  They insisted. It was the most expensive item on the menu, but we were here to experience Peruvian land and culture, and this rodent was part of that. Guinea pig, or cuy, has a 5,000 year history as a major protein source throughout the Andes, and it is still eaten today on special occasions. After a long wait and two pisco sours, it was presented to us fully intact on a giant platter, dressed for the celebration and festooned with colorful accessories, including a miniature party hat. Our dinner was wearing a hat! I took one sliver of a bite, ate the potato lodged inside the poor creature’s jaws instead, and ordered another pisco sour.

After arriving in Puno the next day, we found out you really could spend the night on one of the islands. We were checking into our hostel, and the guy behind the counter handed us a brochure of the available tours. The overnight seemed to be a tour that was second to none. “We have to do it,” I insisted.  “It will be a great adventure.” I went on to describe for Isabel what I envisioned was ahead for us. Our host family will speak Quechua, living lives much the same way as their ancient ancestors. It will be a such a special place, completely frozen in time. They will cook authentic soups, made with potatoes and quinoa, in homes without heat and electricity. It will be freezing cold, but we can put everything we have on when we go to bed. When will we ever have another chance to sleep on an island that doesn’t allow machines? We both agreed that we had the flexibility to add an extra day because we were traveling without having to worry about rooms that were already booked. And so off we went to time travel to another place from long ago across the highest navigable lake in the world. It would be like a fantasy, or at least as close as you can get to one nowadays.

And it was indeed like some kind of mythical odyssey. We spent the morning bouncing around on reed islands made by the Uro people who taught us how they built their floating islands from reeds. They also built their homes and all the furniture inside from reeds. They built the boats that took them from island to island from reeds as well. They even ate the stuff. They would eat the interior part of the stalk, which they unpeeled and offered to us as if it were a banana. They went on to explain the medicinal benefits of using reeds to cure everything, from minor abrasions to headaches. They could place the cool inner substance of the plant directly on to the wound or forehead. They even used it to cure hangovers. Was there a fermented reed drink? I never asked. Their entire life centered around this plant. We sailed on from there for 2 hours and landed that afternoon on the island of Amantani. Our hostess, Inez, met us at the dock and we followed her midway up a mountain to her house. She was short and stout and dressed in traditional clothing. She made us a delicious quinoa soup, and then we were off to climb farther up the mountain to watch the sunset and see the ancient ruins dedicated to Pachamama.

After dinner, Inez’s mother, giddy with delight, asked us if we would like to wear traditional clothing to a party scheduled that evening. The next thing we knew we were dutifully following instructions as this elderly woman dressed us in layer after layer. She was so thoroughly amused by the whole process, laughing slyly with every new article of clothing she put on each of us. The next thing we knew we were dancing with strangers, all holding hands and going around and around in a cyclonic frenzy while a group of musicians played panpipes and drums. As the party winded down, I noticed Inez sitting down on a bench, legs crossed, smacking her chewing gum, and scrolling through her cell phone.  She seemed like any other young woman anywhere in the world. She told us her sister had left the island years ago and was living in Puno. She hadn’t seen her since. She, however, had never left the island of Amantani. Inez was married with a baby, but we never did see any men except the musicians who played at the dance that night. We wondered where all the men were on the island of Amantani. Thankfully, we burned enough energy that day to fall fast asleep on stiff beds covered with Santa Claus sheets. We put on every article of clothing we had and fell asleep in a room without electricity and heat. We might as well have been back in our tent in the Andes.

The next day we headed back to Puno after a day on the island of Taquille. We spent the night in Puno, and then woke up early in the morning to cross the border. Getting into Bolivia as an American is difficult. All Americans are required to apply for a tourist visa. I hadn’t been able to obtain a visa from Bolivia as an American living in Aruba. It’s really challenging to do many things as an American living in Aruba. I visited a website online one evening after a long day at work to start the application process, but I didn’t have much success. The system shut me out forever the next morning after the 12 hours I was given to scan and submit a long list of documents wasn’t met. I sent an email to explain my situation and finally received a curt reply a few weeks before the trip, strongly advising me to apply for the permit before I boarded my plane for South America. I found information online about applying for the visa at the border, but it seemed sketchy. Eventually, I was out of choices, so I packed a special folder that contained the mind numbing list of items required by Bolivian immigration: official copies of my bank statements, copy of hotel reservations, copy of flight information, Yellow Fever vaccinations, passport, copy of passport, separate official passport photo and $160 U.S. dollars. Would they let me through once I reached the border? It was a lot of extra baggage to carry.

Headed for the border that morning, we gazed out the window for hours and hours, taking in a rugged landscape of natural beauty and never-ending poverty.  At one point, the bus abruptly stopped while army tanks rolled by and we made our way through some kind of check point. There seemed to be a strong military presence all around us, and I had no idea what was taking place. Thankfully, I was sitting next to a handsome tour guide (tour guides are treated like rock stars in the Andes) from Lima who led a small group of American tourists, the only other Americans on the bus. He provided much needed running commentary for me as he fielded questions from his inquisitive group about what they were seeing out the window and also what paperwork they needed to pull together for immigration. “Southern Peru is more dangerous than other parts because of  protests,” he explained to his curious group. “Do you have a copy of your passport? You are going to need that. Start getting your documents together and have them ready to go. Don’t forget to be friendly and smile.” I was happy they were on board because I had no idea what to expect, and at least I could ask this guy who seemed to be an expert on Americans crossing the Bolivian border.

It was snowing by the time we arrived at the border. Crossing a border in South America by bus is a convoluted and confusing process. Everyone on the bus is ushered off the bus and then in and out of buildings on both sides of the border. After being processed out of Peru, we crossed the border into Bolivia by climbing up a hill on foot to the back of a long line outside a small white building. An immigration officer walked along the line and plucked out all the Americans, pointing to the building and directing us to go inside. I said goodbye to my friend who held a much prized Dutch passport. Once inside, I found myself behind the counter and facing a man who was rapidly firing questions at me, one after another in Spanish. I had emptied out a quarter-inch thick folder of paperwork and he didn’t seemed satisfied. He sifted and shuffled through my documents, sorting them all out in categories to file away. He asked the whereabouts of my application, and I explained that I read I could fill it out at the border. He did not like that answer. Finally, after a few nail-biting moments, I knew I had the green light once he asked me for $160. But then he didn’t like the $100  bill I gave him and passed it back to me. I asked if I could find my friend in line outside because she had more American money. Thankfully, she had some twenties stashed away, and I took $100 worth back into the building and handed them over to the officer who carefully examined the edges and passed most of them back at me once again. Nothing was good enough for this guy. Back and forth I went in this manner, inside and out, retrieving twenty-dollar bills and taking them back into the building only to have my money rejected over and over again. Eventually, he told me to go back and get the $100 dollar bill I originally gave him. I gave him even more money in Bolivianos, filled out my life story on the application, and received a sticker that let’s me plan my next vacation to Bolivia until 2026.

We took off in the bus and seemed to drive around the lake for hours. Eventually, we made our way into the city of La Paz and moments before we would arrive at the station, our bus just suddenly stopped. The bus driver stepped off and disappeared, leaving all of us wondering what was next. 15 minutes later he appeared again to tell us there was a strike — we would have to walk with all of our luggage the rest of the way. We filed down an empty highway, littered with large boulders and barrels. Along the way, smoldering ash sporadically appeared on the embankments on either side. The scene was eerie, and I had no idea where it would end. Eventually, we stopped at a bridge where police stood in formation across it. We decided to climb our way to the top of the bridge since we were told that we would be walking into the heat of the demonstration if we continued along the highway. From what we gathered, it was a transportation strike held in front of the bus station, which just happened to be our destination. We climbed to the top of the bridge and said our goodbyes to the other stranded passenger, some were Bolivians and others ducked into taxis and zoomed off for the airport to catch flights back to Europe. They were glad to get out of there, but we were left in the thick of this turbulent scene for the rest of the day because we were catching an overnight bus to Uyuni from the station where the strike was happening. I asked one of the policemen which way we should go; in every direction there were chanting crowds and chaos. He told us to walk across the bridge to the other side. We scoped out the scene ahead while we crossed, flinching from time to time as we heard pop pop pop in the background. Eventually, we found another way into the bus station, and after checking the status of our overnight bus and dropping our luggage, we decided the best thing to do would be to escape into a restaurant and sample some Bolivian cuisine. We ate some mystery dish that we never clearly identified. Then we wandered as far away as possible and visited two museums. a quaint coffee shop, several art galleries, and a local bar.

We made a point of getting back to the bus station before dark. And then off we went into the night, leaving La Paz and headed across this landlocked remote landscape on an overnight bus. I tried to sleep, but it was useless. It was freezing on the bus. And splurging on a luxury sleeping chair may have not been the best option since the Swiss girl in front of me reclined her seat all the way back pinning my legs in a precarious position: I was locked into this rollercoaster for a long ride. And it really was a little bit like a rollercoaster. There were so many unexpected swerves and rattles and jolts along the way. The bus broke down twice that night, once around 3 o’clock and another time right before we arrived at our destination. Each time we waited for about an hour in the pitch black  darkness as the driver/ makeshift mechanic tinkered around under the hood and then tried to start the bus over and over again. The bus would sputter forever and then choke each time in defiance while the passengers inside snored sound asleep. How could anyone sleep through this? How long would we be stranded here? This could go on for hours! Transportation in Bolivia seemed very unreliable to me in those middle of the night moments, or basically any time I boarded a bus in the country.

Somehow we made it to Uyuni shortly after sunrise to a below zero chill when we stepped off the bus. It took us a while , but we finally found a taxi to take us to our hostel. The cold was so shocking for two girls who live in the tropical zone that we could barely function as a result. Once we found our hostel, I did my best to speak Spanish on no sleep through chattering teeth with an eccentric man who was working the night shift, but there were definitely some gaps in communication happening. He assured us someone could meet us in the lobby at 10 o’clock to take us on a day tour of the Salt Flats. Then we found our way to the best breakfast scene I have ever experienced at any hostel anywhere ever. And it wasn’t because we had just arrived after a sleepless night on an overnight bus. As we walked in, Lou Reed was playing, and there was a giant spread of fresh fruit, scrambled eggs, an assortment of Quiche, roasted potatoes, Greek yogurt, and, most importantly, very strong coffee. During breakfast we found out that our 10 o’clock tour would be a private tour, meaning it would be very costly. Neither of us wanted to spend that kind of money, so we opted to just walk out into this frontier land on an impossible quest to find a jeep and a tour guide. But, first, we needed a shower. We walked out the front door of the hostel around 9:30 or so, down the street, and into a the first door we found that advertised tours: Tito Tours. Tito did not speak any English, but we were able to find a last-minute spot on a tour leaving in 10 minutes. We boarded a jeep with a Bolivian family and a single girl from La Paz. We drove miles and miles across a never-ending expanse of  bright white world and listened to our tour guide, emphatically sharing all of his wisdom in a language that wasn’t our own. Eventually, we stopped, and he told us we were going to have lunch as he prepared chicken and rice in the back of the jeep. We sat down on the hard cold ground for a picnic lunch and made a new friend with the single girl from La Paz. We all collaborated the rest of day while taking pictures, playing around with perspective by making ourselves into giants who stomped on one another’s heads and climbed inside boots.

We were lucky everything went somewhat smoothly up until that point since we were traveling impromptu. We booked the overnight bus to Uyuni in Copacabana from two women who were sitting at a table outside the bar where we had just had drinks. Based on my experience, it is safer to buy bus tickets buzzed rather than sleepy because after our Salt Flat tour that day, we thought we had booked a return ticket from Uyuni to La Paz that left at 7 AM in the morning. We were at 36 hours without sleep, and apparently this AM or PM detail escaped us. So we headed back to our hostel and had a delicious pizza dinner, reminiscing about our adventure that day. Meanwhile, our bus was departing for La Paz while we ate. Groggy and sleepy-eyed, we arrived at the bus station early the next morning after setting our alarm for 5:30 AM. Actually, bus station is a bit misleading because bus stations in this part of the world aren’t really bus stations, rather just a street where the bus will pick you up. So there we stood in the middle of the street. No buses. No people.  It was just the two of us, standing in the freezing cold with a big problem to solve. We couldn’t stay in Uyuni another night because our flight home left soon from La Paz. Plus we had splurged by booking an expensive hotel in La Paz and didn’t want to miss one of our two nights there. Luckily, we talked to enough locals to discover there was a company with a new line that had recently opened up from Uyuni to La Paz during the day. The buses departed everyday at noon. We found the bus company and bought a ticket. It was a line that none of the tourists knew about, so everyone on the bus was local except for us. We were happy to be able to see Bolivia during the day and pass through towns that most tourist never see. We arrived in La Paz around midnight and took a taxi to our hotel.

The next morning began a whirlwind 48 hour tour of the city. We had two days in the city and we packed in as much as we could since we live on a desert island. We stepped out our hotel to walk the streets and discover as we went. We stumbled across an art festival that stretched across at least a dozen city blocks. Artist sold their works. There were professional dancers and musicians performing. There were random street performers as well, including a Bolivian Michael Jackson. All along the way, there were carts selling everything from ceviche to candied apples. We found the contemporary art museum we wanted to visit. The next day we saw another protest of handicapped people, obstructing the streets by taking over the lanes  and rolling down the streets in their wheelchairs. Then we found the coca museum and witchcraft market. Around the corner from there, we had delicious lattes and sampled the best tiramasu I have ever tasted. Later, we found the main center of the city, which was heavily guarded and gated in every direction, but we made our way past the guards and found a plaza with pigeons and ice cream vendors. We did some shopping and ate Mexican food at a place that could have been located in Austin instead of La Paz: it was that good! We created our own city tour, and it was both messy and brilliant, but uniquely our own and unlike any other.

Traveling without a plan is just like that: both messy and brilliant. You don’t know what you are going to get. There are no guarantees. You may not make it to all the big sites.  It’s not for the fearful of missing out crowd. There will be missteps and mishaps, and you will just have to roll with it. But you will also see things that aren’t in the guide-book. And there is something so refreshing about not reading any of the guide books. You have no idea what to expect. Everything is unfolding in front of you and you are experiencing it without any kind of preconceived notion of what it might be like.  In the end, the best benefit is spontaneously creating your own journey because there is no other version quite like it. It’s your story to tell exactly the same way you stumbled upon it.

trekking tahuantinsuyu

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I stuffed a chocolate brown corduroy jacket into my backpack and remember thinking that this would keep me warm when our plane landed at the airport in Cusco. My friend and I were on our way out the door to catch a plane to trek the Salkantay trail to Machu Picchu. It was winter there and summer all year round on the island where we live, so I didn’t have much to choose from when it came to packing for cold seasons. The jacket was a tight fit since I bought it years ago in my twenties. I’d gained some weight after marrying a man in my thirties who insisted we eat tacos for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. His family was of Mexican descent, and he knew how to bring authentic tamales and taquitos to the table every evening. Dinner was always delicious, but I paid a price. I must have gained 20 pounds by the time I filed for divorce. Now that I was starting to lose weight after moving to a sunny island where ceviche is a staple food and you can’t find good Mexican cuisine, I remember also thinking, as I packed up the last items that day, that I would most certainly be back to my normal weight (whatever that means?) by the time I trekked 38 miles through the Andes. Never mind the fact that I was now well into my forties, that jacket would fit me again in a matter of days.

As much as I insisted that turning forty caused me to put on a few more pounds, my parents firmly believe that your metabolism does not have to slow down as you age. My father is a harsh critic when it comes to diet. I remember gleefully sharing my enthusiasm for enchiladas by taking him out to El Fenix for one of those winter Monday holidays, perhaps it was Presidents’ Day. He calmly placed his fork down after two or three bites of his lunch and silently shook his head in disbelief. “Why do people eat this food? I just don’t understand why anyone would eat this stuff. It’s so bad for you. That is going to have to be it for me.” He was leading by example in hopes that I would finally see the light of his wisdom and walk away from this forbidden cuisine the same way an alcoholic might push aside his cocktail and sign up for a Twelve-step program. He sat there, eyeing my fork, patiently waiting for me to place it down and walk with him out of that restaurant forever and into a new bright future ahead. Instead, I cleaned my plate and asked the waiter to box up his meal to go.

I try not to be fixated on weight the way my parents and American media messages suggest I should be. My dad could have finished eating those enchiladas. Enchiladas are a delicious food that people must eat and enjoy in moderation. Mexican food is a blessing to all of us here on Earth. Weight loss was on my mind that day because it just happened to be one of the benefits to embarking upon this adventure I was about to take. There were others for sure, but this one was immediate and measurable, and that was the incentive I needed to psychologically prepare myself for what I was about to do. I guess I figured, no matter what I was about to endure, at least I would lose a few pounds.

Adventure is an interesting word. Most people have positive associations in their mind when the word is thrown out there. It just sounds fun. Adventurous people are those you’d like to have as friends. But after you have set forth on a few of these journeys, you know the road isn’t always smoothly paved because it could, at anytime, present you with an unexpected roadblock or sudden sharp curve, maybe even a cliff to fall off as you plummet to your death. Didn’t busses plunge over steep ravines all the time in South America? There are inherent risks involved when it comes to any adventure. Years ago, I stayed at the Chianti Institute in Marfa, Texas over the summer. I pored through all the books in the library on lazy afternoons and distinctly remember a book by Agnes Martin. Her words have always stuck with me. “Life is an adventure and adventures are difficult. They are hard work and one does not know how they will go on or how they will end.”

These are words I know to be true, not just for travel, but also for so many other things we embark upon in life. I also know the rewards can be immense; so much so, that the hard work and difficulty it takes to move through it will make it worth it in the end. And as you get older, the regret of not taking the plunge will be far more bitter down the road than any discomfort you experience as you face these challenges. So these are the things I told myself as I prepared. Because the truth is that I am not fearless by any means. It is actually in my nature to worry, worry is part of my DNA – everyone in my family does it. And as I get older, I am even more timid and hesitant than I ever remember being racing down ski slopes in my twenties. But I know I have to make myself move through fear because if I don’t, fear will stop me in my tracks and keep me from moving forward to experience a forty something life to the fullest.

I fretted about all kinds of stuff before the plane even took off for Peru. I was worried about just making it to the fifth day on our trek. It was rated as moderate to difficult compared to all of the other hikes to Machu Picchu. The itinerary was intimidating. Eventually, I stopped reading about it online because all of the reviews were freaking me out. I’d find out everything I needed to know soon enough. I kept it to myself, but I had serious doubts. I had doubts that my ligaments and joints would withstand the relentless pounding. That is the thing about aging that no one tells you when you are younger. Eventually you start to feel the life you have lived over again in your spine and sockets. If you have had a certain amount of bumps and bruises in life, or have just lived a very active lifestyle thus far, your body has a way of keeping the memories alive for you. It’s going to bring those aches and pains back from time to time. I didn’t want that to happen deep in the Andes. How would I even get out of there if it did? 

I also worried about my clothing and trekking gear. As much as I tried to pull it all together living on an island, I just didn’t have everything I needed. I didn’t have the clothing made from synthetic materials. No Techwhick t-shirts. No base layers in Merino wool. Everything I packed was made from natural fibers because they were all makeshift selections from clothes I wore during my daily life in the Dutch Caribbean. I guess my yoga pants would have to double as hiking pants. Hopefully, it is acceptable to wear jeans when you hike. I couldn’t find any of the stuff I needed shopping in Aruba, and it was too expensive to ship from the States. Luckily, we found a Merrell kiosk of hiking boots after a wild goose chase one Saturday afternoon when Isabel and I visited every shoe store on the island. Every sales person assured me that they understood what I needed and knew where I could find it: and so we were off to the next shoe store, and the next, and the next, and another after that until we finally hit the jackpot. My ex-husband was kind enough to surprisingly ship a Camelbak filled with a few hiking items he deemed would be essential since he was the expert in adventure sports. I guess it was his way of making peace after I picked up all the attorney fees. My biggest mistake was not buying socks made specifically for hiking. I bought a bulk package of white cotton socks at the Chinese store because that was all I could find on the island. I was an amateur in many ways.

One thing I wasn’t worried about was arriving in Cusco. Nothing compares to that first moment when you step out on to the streets of a new city. Other people may fear being dropped into a foreign country surrounded by people from another culture. This was one of the few things in my life that never brought about anxiety.  Here I was in the Andes. I’d read about this place my entire life. I’d been here over and over again in my mind, flipping through page after page in books. There were llamas and glorious golden statues of Pachacutec and women wearing colorful textiles stooped on the steps of Spanish cathedrals. Terraces could be seen in the distance; we would eat potatoes or quinoa for dinner that evening. We went to the museum as soon as we felt we had adjusted to the altitude and peered through glass, carefully studying mummy bundles and trephined skulls. I examined Inca stone walls up close on the city streets: there really was no way to slide anything between those giant blocks placed so precisely together without mortar. Inside the cathedral at Plaza de Armas, iconography meshed together on a painting where Jesus and his disciples sat around a table serving up Guinea pig and chicha at the Last Supper. Dancers twirled down the street in anticipation of Inti Raymi. All of this would get me through anything ahead. I could climb a mountain in yoga pants and stupid white cotton socks. Who cares if I would soon freeze to death and my feet would become covered in painful blisters the size of kiwi fruit? I was in Tahuantinsuyu.

After a banana for breakfast and a long bus ride that left Cusco before sunrise, we arrived at our jumping off point, Mollepata, just as the day was breaking. Every one made it through the first day gracefully and with ease. Well, except for the first incline, the climb up seemed to be affecting all seven people in our trekking group. I stopped for a moment after the first thirty steps or so and panicked because I couldn’t catch my breath. Once we reached a vantage point along the slope of the mountain, our tour guide — Ever was his name, which is actually a common name in this region — asked if anyone was feeling the effects of the altitude. He took out a tiny bottle from inside his jacket pocket and poured a splash of shamanic flower spirit water into all of our open palms. He told us to rub our hands together and deeply inhale the fragrance. I have no idea what the stuff was but it did seem to give us the boost we needed to continue climbing.

I’ve spent a lot of time around mountains. My mother put me on skis as a toddler; some of my first memories as a child were of maneuvering my way in snow plow formation through the legs of giant wooden replicas of Bert and Ernie. But these were not the Rockies. I imagine you would have to go all the way to Alaska to see mountains this big in the United States. It was the world as I knew it, only magnified, and so incredibly so, that I couldn’t help but feel about as significant as a gnat. I scanned the panorama of snow capped peaks, jutting up across the sky (some as high as 17,000 feet). As impressive as the scenery was as I looked up high, I was equally impressed looking down to the ground at a pile of potatoes. Ever, who was enthusiastically ready to explain the process of making chuno, had just stopped us abruptly in our tracks in front of a tiny stone house with a thatched roof to gather around a tuberous heap. This is why I had come on this crazy expedition. It was the history in the Andes that made my heart skip a beat.

The long history of the potato fascinates me, so ignoble in appearance, yet they are still worshipped in the Andes today. They even designated a day on the calendar to celebrate potatoes, May 30th. These gritty, lumpy, suspicious looking spuds had to be the greatest novelty carried back across the Atlantic to Europe. Although Europeans were at first recorded to be suspicious, potatoes would eventually be elevated in status as one of the most important crops after the discovery of the New World. There are nearly 4,000 varieties in Peru, and papas (derived from Quechua) were on the menu for just about every meal we ate throughout our time in Peru. Who knew they could be that colorful and delicious!

On the second day we set out as the sun was rising to climb to the summit of Mt. Salkantay. We had trained somewhat for this on our tiny island at sea level. At the center of Aruba, there is a volcanic formation, referred to as a mountain but actually only a hill. People living on the island call it Hooiberg, which is Dutch for haystack. It is 541 feet to the top, which makes me laugh now that I realize we were going to be climbing to a mountain summit that was 15,088 feet high. We would climb the 600 stairs to the top after work every week on Wednesdays. As part of our conditioning program, we both agreed to go on day-long hikes every Sunday to build up our strength and fortitude to survive under extreme conditions. Our theory was that hiking in sweltering heat under a powerful tropical sun would prepare us for anything we might encounter trekking the second highest mountain range after the Himalayas. We should also make our island hikes extra challenging by going all day long, so as to feel what walking 8 consecutive hours is really like. Maybe we could get lost once in a while (Check), and even better if we were really low on water (Check).

Most of our pre-hikes in Aruba were along the coast on the rugged Atlantic side of the island. The scenery was always spectacular, and our efforts really did help condition us for what was ahead. Our hardest hike in Aruba before leaving for Peru was an 8 hour day, going down and then up two dry stream beds in Arikok Park. The heat in Aruba is unforgiving, and after several years without much rain, not much grows in Arikok these days. Hiking these trails, Rooi Tambu and Rooi Prins, it seemed as if the world had ended and we were the only humans left.  No one else was on the trail, which the park ranger had warned us would be the case. Everything had died. Dead trees. Dead goats. Eventually the goats were no longer goats but scattered bones, a skull here, a leg over there, and then a rib cage. Soon we came across a deceptive green apple tree, the infamous Manchineel tree, which just happens to be the most poisonous tree on Earth. There was a big sign reading DANGER directly underneath the tree, only after going under the tree to read the small print do you find out that it is perilous to stand there because the sap could leak onto your bare skin and cause you to suddenly break into a blistering rash that feels exactly like — as many wretched victims have described — being set on fire. Some victims did not live to tell us what it feels like if you accidentally eat the apple. After that hike, I knew I could take on the Salkantay. I was psychologically prepared for it at least. And my boots were fully broken in now.

So on that second day, by far the hardest day, over the summit and into the jungle we marched. The hike seemed to go on forever, maybe ten hours, possibly 12. Who knows? At the end, we were in survivalist mode so the details escape me. As we scaled to the summit, most of us had to stop often because so many were suffering from altitude sickness. It was a relief when the horses passed by because we could actually rest without looking as if we weren’t going to make it. I remember feeling like my body was going to give up on me, but my mind stayed strong. “It is all psychological,” Ever reminded us over and over again. Eventually, I just did what I always do during my toughest moments and focused on my breathing, the climb had become a moving meditation, one very shallow breath after another. This got me to the top. We were all blissed on the way down — here was something we could do without gasping for air.  Then afternoon turned to night and we were still on the descent, except now we were walking in the dark in the jungle. By the time we made it to camp and turned our flashlight off, I could no longer walk. My legs felt like jello and my knees felt like someone had hammered  them with a mallet.

Early the next morning, freezing cold and bundled up in multiple layers inside our sleeping bags, we woke up to a hand floating through the zipper of our tent. The hand was holding a cup as it rang like our morning alarm clock, “Coca tea?” After taking the piping hot beverage, the hand reminded us to be ready to go in 30 minutes, never mind that it was still pitch black dark. I did the best I could to pack up and prepare for the day, but I left behind my sunglasses and overlooked bandaging up major blisters that were developing on my feet.

Off we went onto the outskirts of the Amazon. The scenery was epic, but my knees were shot from walking a steep downhill most of the day before, so I was limping at this point. Isabel was walking behind me to make sure I didn’t fall off the side of the mountain, as I wobbled unsteadily on a path carved into the steep slope, a path about the width of an escalator. Suddenly, I stopped in my tracks on the gravel, looked over the steep ravine inches from my feet, and just started sobbing. “I can’t do this,” I told my friend. I cried because I didn’t understand any of these people. “Why would you voluntarily do this to your body? I’ve always been trained to listen to your body. If your knees are screaming at you, then it is just common sense to stop and maybe take a seat so you can rest.” Isabel offered her best Dutch words of encouragement. Eventually, Ever saw that I was in distress and came to walk behind me, taking Isabel’s place so she could move on with her life and enjoy the nature walk. The pain I was feeling on the downhill was normal he said. Everyone feels it to varying degrees. Somehow just hearing that others had walked in this agony before me helped to get through it. We made it to camp that afternoon and were so relieved to dip into hot springs at Santa Teresa that evening. You could see a glimpse of Huayna Picchu through the clearing. It became clear just how close we were.

On Day 4 we paid extra money to opt out of the morning hike and decided zip lining would be far less dangerous than taking any more steps than we had to on that trek. I harnessed up and before I knew it, I was sliding across 5 cables, one after the other: the tallest and longest in South America. Along the way was a suspension bridge that we had to cross to complete the course. My legs were trembling when I took the first steps out on to that bridge. Again, my mind turned to history, and somehow just thinking about the ancient Inca and how these suspension bridges were an integral part of their road system seemed to help. Llamas crossed bridges similar to this one. If a llama can make it across, then I can do this. That afternoon we followed a train track for several hours into Aguas Calientes, the small town at the base of Machu Picchu. We would finally get a hot shower and Wifi.

We lined up to board our bus to Machu Picchu four o’clock the next morning. It was June 21st, winter solstice, so we wanted to be at the top by daybreak. We’d been going up and down mountains for four days now, but I have never felt every step quite the way I did that morning climbing to the top of Machu Picchu. My body was completely beat. At this point my feet were covered in painful blisters, and my legs felt like they had just been pulled out from under a tractor. But my heart was racing ecstatically, just from the excitement of where I was about to land. Morning fog obstructed our view once we got to the top. We couldn’t see anything, but we listened intently as Ever told us all about what would soon be revealed. And just like that is how it happened. The misty curtain burned away with the noonday sun, and there it was for us to behold in all its glory: Proof that we can’t have the answer to everything there is to know here on Earth.

Our tour guide became our friend once we were back in Cuzco. He took us out for drinks to the places where the locals go, per our request. We learned even more about the Salkantay, the Inca, and the ancient Andes. People were carried out all the time he told us. Sometimes they get injured, other times they buckle under old injuries, but most of the time they just freak out and order that someone get them the hell out of there because this isn’t what they signed up for. They have to carry them out on horseback or lift them out by helicopter. We asked which trail is the hardest. “The Salkantay is harder than the Inca Trail,” he expertly stated without hesitation. We asked who was the oldest to ever finish the Salkantay. He told us the oldest man to ever finish the Salkantay was 76, and the oldest man to finish the Inca Trail was 92. Ever knew everything there was to know about the Andes. He had grown up in a tiny house far from Cuzco, learning Quechua as his first language. He went on to explain nuances in Quechua pronunciation and how the slightest misstep can mean something entirely different. He gave us several examples, but his favorite was that Machu Picchu is pronounced MAH-choo PEEK-choo, which means old mountain.  If you pronounce it (MAH-choo PEE-choo, then you are saying old penis. His favorite way to teach tourist how to pronounce Sacsayhuaman was to tell them just remember it sounds exactly like sexy woman. He filled us in on all kinds of details. “Things have changed a lot at Machu Picchu recently. We used to play soccer and barbecue llamas up there.”

I wore the corduroy jacket out for drinks in Cuzco with Ever that night and it did finally fit. I’d lost a good amount of weight. It’s amazing how much weight you can lose in a week walking from sun up to sundown. It was nice to know I could be college thin again if I spent every day climbing mountains. But real life doesn’t work like that. Most of us don’t spend all day exerting that kind of physical effort. There are just not enough hours in the day to devote that much time to exercise; I have way too many other interest to spend all my time thinking about weight and working out. In the end, it seemed so trivial to even be thinking about any of it. What a stupid thought? How programmed I was as a woman to think of something so petty before leaving on such a monumental trip. And how programmed we are as women to fixate on weight when our bodies are limitless with potential. Instead, how thankful I should be that my body has carried me through all my years in life to this moment, that it took me throughout the Andes and returned me safely back home.

Some people go to Machu Picchu and report back a kind of epiphany; they seem to have found the meaning of life up in those clouds. I wish I had such existential words to share. Although I agree that Machu Picchu definitely takes you to higher ground in the Stevie Wonder sense of the word, the truth is I am just as confused about what it all means as I ever was before I fought my way to the the top of that mountain. It’s not as if I could care less about the deeper meaning. I think about these things often. I have a stack of books on theology left to me by my grandmother sitting on my bedside table. Some of these books were given to my grandmother from a woman I never met, but who everyone agrees was the family saint, Aunt Margaret. They both marked pages, underlined sentences, and often annotated in the margins. I read the books hoping these wise women can still speak to me somehow so as to guide me as I turn each new corner. I’ve learned to accept that I can never know what is around the corner, that it doesn’t always work out the way I had hoped, that sometimes it can be painful, and sometime it can break your heart. But I have to keep turning corners again and again anyway. Perhaps the biggest inspiration to taking action and turning the corner is just knowing that at any moment you could find a city in the clouds.

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